Sen. Mike McGuire pushes a bill to force PG&E to bury its power lines faster
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, accused Pacific Gas and Electric Co. leaders of paying “lip service” to wildfire mitigation and said utility regulators should use a firmer hand in hastening efforts to bury thousands of miles of electrical lines across the state’s high-risk zones.
McGuire introduced a bill last week that would require the California Public Utility Commission, which regulates PG&E and other electrical utility companies, to create a program to expedite the burial of transmission lines.
Burying power lines is one of PG&E’s main strategies for stemming wildfires sparked from its electrical grid. Last month the utility announced plans to bury 175 miles statewide in 2022. But in a phone interview with The Press Democrat Monday, McGuire said that wasn’t enough.
“I am so incredibly frustrated and angry with this utility, and this state must do everything in its power to hold them accountable,” McGuire said, “I’m tired of the apologies. I’m tired of them paying fines and I’m tired of the lip service … I simply don’t trust those at the top of the corporation.”
PG&E executives have touted a program to bury 10,000 miles of power lines in high fire risk areas within 10 years. McGuire’s bill would take that promise and make it mandatory. To accomplish that, the bill would allow expedited permitting processes and other regulatory boosts paired with financial penalties when the utility fails to hit deadlines.
If the bill passes as introduced, the state would streamline PG&E’s permitting process by imposing a 150 day deadline for local governments to approve or deny projects and a 270 day deadline for a ruling on lawsuits filed against such projects under California’s Environmental Quality Act. The bill would also force the cooperation of telecommunication companies, requiring those companies to underground their cables in the same trench as electrical utilities and share costs.
The requirement could protect telecommunication systems from wildfires as well, according to the release. During the deadly 2017 firestorm, wide swathes of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties lost cellphone and landline service just when it was needed most.
McGuire’s legislation also seeks to blunt the impact on individual electric bills from burying 10,000 miles of electrical lines. Californians are paying higher electrical rates as PG&E and other utilities embark on this and other expensive efforts to mitigate wildfire risk. Under the legislation, however, utilities would be forced to use federal infrastructure dollars before tapping ratepayer funds.
McGuire unveiled the bill less than a month after Pacific Gas and Electric Co. detailed its plans to bury the 175 miles of power lines in high risk fire zones in its 2022 wildfire mitigation plan. Utility regulators require such a plan be filed each year.
But McGuire called the utility’s suggestion it would bury that many lines “a joke,” saying the utility had set such goals and failed to achieve them before.
PG&E’s plan includes burying around 67 miles of power lines in five Northern California counties, Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa and Marin. The plan is currently awaiting approval by state regulators. An earlier data set suggested the utility would bury 72 miles in the five counties.
A seemingly ceaseless stream of deadly and destructive wildfires sparked by PG&E equipment has generated political momentum for more forceful regulation, longtime political consultant Steven Maviglio said.
Still McGuire’s bill is likely to undergo many changes during the legislative session, which runs through August, said Maviglio, former Gov. Gray Davis’ press secretary. The bill involves powerful players — both the telecommunications companies and the electrical utilities.
“Something that involves so many political heavyweights like this is going to go through the sausage-making process in a big way,” he said.
McGuire’s senate colleagues elevated him to Senate Majority Leader this year. “He’s always been outspoken on this issue (of utility-sparked fires),” Maviglio said, “but he has a little more clout now.”
Previous measures to pin PG&E down on burying lines have failed, but McGuire contended he would continue to throw his weight behind such measures. “I have spent my career in the legislature fighting PG&E and the telecommunication companies and we have won way more than we have lost,” he said.
In a brief statement, PG&E officials on Monday reiterated their commitment to burying power lines, but said the company had not yet taken a position on McGuire’s legislation.
Burying power lines “is a one-time investment that results in the highest level of risk reduction for catastrophic fires, significant reduction to the likelihood of (power shut-off) events, improved overall utility reliability, compliments other ongoing wildfire mitigation efforts, and results in fewer trees being trimmed or cut down on a yearly basis,” PG&E’s statement read.
Some utility reform activists and wildfire survivors worry about too strict a focus, from either utility executives or legislators, on burying power lines, an expensive and slow solution to an ongoing crisis fueled by climate change. PG&E needs to lower wildfire risk through a combination of technological innovation, burying power lines and vegetation management, Will Abrams, a 2017 wildfire survivor who has become an outspoken advocate for reforming the investor-owned electrical utility, told The Press Democrat.
Legislators should be demanding a measurable reduction in wildfire risk by a set percentage every year, Abrams said, and not necessarily backing a particular strategy like burying transmission lines.
“Rather than Sacramento saying ‘this is what I think you need to do,’” Abrams said, “to me it’s ‘look, I don’t care what tactic you use, just reduce the wildfire risk.’”
You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Graham at 707-526-8667 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AndrewGraham88
Business enterprise and investigations, The Press Democrat
I dig into businesses, utility companies and nonprofits to learn how their actions, or inactions, impact the lives of North Bay residents. I’m looking to dive deep into public utilities, labor struggles and real estate deals. I try to approach my work with the journalism axioms of giving voice to the voiceless, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable in mind.
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